Contrary to some recent arguments about the effectiveness of workplace wellbeing programmes, they are an essential part of business strategy. As to whether they work or not, is a matter of how good a programme you have and how you determine success.
There are three key ingredients I have found behind any successful wellbeing programme, which I’ll come to shortly. First, let me emphasise the terms “success” and “wellbeing” because these are often the most widely used but ill-defined phrases when it comes to workplace health programmes. I believe they should be clearly defined up front, regardless of the size or scope of a programme.
A recent HR magazine survey of 400 CEOs from small to large organisations, including multinationals, provided a nice temperature gauge for where businesses are today in their thinking about workplace health & wellbeing. The results showed that around 65% have a H&W strategy in place (but over three-quarters of these just provide a range of initiatives and don’t link to business goals), 25% want to do something whilst around 10% do nothing.
So broadly speaking, according to their findings, just under 1- in- 5 employers are linking H&W to business success. Compare this to 10 years ago and the growth in [measurable] H&W programmes is pretty good. But what is holding things back and why do we hear so much talk about infective spend, lack of engagement and limited ROI?
Whilst academics, suppliers and governing bodies largely agree and communicate reasonably similar messages about what an effective workplace health programme should entail, there is still confusion over what the wellbeing agenda is to an organisation – and of course, it doesn’t help that wellbeing will look very different from one organisation to another. An approach that reaps high engagement and great returns for one company, may fall flat with another.
Whilst the continued growth in workplace wellness services marketplace is encouraging, it also reflects the growth in what can often be isolated initiatives which have limited integration with a broader programme or business strategy (this correlates with the HR magazine findings which found almost half of the 400 companies surveyed provided initiatives but didn’t join the dots). This is not necessarily a bad thing (and some companies acknowledge this and are comfortable with it) as each initiative will tackle specific issues. However, should we differentiate this type of approach, which arguably fuels the low engagement/ ROI naysayers, to one that takes a more formal business strategy alignment?
Which brings me back to the three ingredients which I believe are business critical to any workplace H&W programme and will break down barriers to implementation or programme sustainability.
Ingredient No. 1: Strategic alignment (translate the business priorities into the wellbeing strategy).
As simple as it sounds, we must understand our business priorities and the current and future needs of our workforce. These days, the former is more blurred as practically every business today is in the people business – and you’re going to struggle to find a company where staff would be more engaged and productive if their employer didn’t care about their wellbeing – but different companies may place greater focus on compliance, risk management and attendance than say, creation of a culture of wellbeing. Evidence shows higher participation, engagement and greater behaviour change modifications are made the closer a programme aligns to organisational strategy.
Equally, understanding employee needs and their health profiles will help ensure the programme is relevant. Why place emphasis on nutrition or physical activities if the biggest concerns to employee wellbeing are related to job design or say financial security?
So the first step in creating a programme is a strategic assessment – take a good look under the hood – only then can you help determine where you want to be and how you get there. Once an organisation has a clear understanding of where they are now, their needs, requirements and capabilities, they can build and implement an effective, coordinated and measureable wellbeing programme.
Ingredient No. 2: Clearly define “wellbeing”
Wellbeing is a great word, but in the context of the workplace, the “do this” and your company will achieve “that” is too fluffy. Every company is different and because “wellbeing” means different things to both staff and the organisation, it is important to have a shared understanding amongst staff and the organisation of what it means to the business.
What is important is to really understand and clearly define what wellbeing means to your organisation. Without a clear definition and understanding of the why, you can end up with a series of initiatives – and I don’t believe initiatives equal a cohesive and sustainable workplace wellbeing strategy.
Ingredient No. 3: Join the dots (integrate).
The final ingredient is to link everything together. Even before starting to design (or redesign an existing programme), it is vital to be thinking holistically. Everything you do should be integrated and aligned to one shared mission. So many programmes fall short of expectations because they consist of isolated initiatives which have undefined direction or measurement.
Most employers I speak to recognise the importance of taking a coordinated and joined-up approach to workplace health and some are beginning to move in this direction. There are of course some obstacles and challenges for the employer in doing this, from historical focus on short-term returns, existing provision, policies and procedures can sometimes muddy the water, to ownership issues – both strategic and at practitioner level – but we are definitely seeing an increase in the number of employers recruiting dedicated in-house people to drive the ‘integrated’ wellbeing agenda.
I’ve only scratched the surface here and whilst there are hundreds of factors to consider in creating an effective wellbeing programme, when we talk about ineffective spend, low take-up, no impact on behaviours, no ROI etc. we are almost certainly looking at an organisation that doesn’t include these three key ingredients.
Stephen, the author of this article is a guest blogger for this year’s Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Summit on the 27 November.
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- Will your wellbeing programme only ever be as effective as your people strategy? - 25 October 2013